- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 1, 2001

Forgive Steve Comiskey if he's been a little frenetic this week. As owner of the National Lacrosse League's Washington Power, he's had his hand in finalizing sponsorship deals, distributing tickets, primping and tidying up Capital Centre. He's making sure everything is in place for tonight's home opener.
Comiskey, like the owners of the 12 other NLL teams, is hoping his efforts cultivate and build support for the 15-year-old league, which is gradually finding its niche in the diverse and crowded pro sports landscape. Just four years removed from single-entity ownership, the NLL, with eight teams in the United States and five in Canada, is taking ambitious steps forward.
The NLL, which plays indoors on turf over a hockey rink, finds itself in a period of growth. By next season, when three teams will be added to the current 13, 11 expansion teams will have been added in the past four years. Second-year commissioner Jim Jennings has helped generate more national sponsors, opened marketing opportunities and secured television contracts with CNN/SI, HDNet and a Canadian national network for this season.
By surviving 15 years, the NLL has shown staying power. Now it is surging ahead, trying to parlay its small but loyal fan base into a nationwide following and eventually become the fifth major sport in the United States.
"Nobody has taken [lacrosse] to the next level, and that's what we're trying to do," Jennings says.
League officials and players are banking that the fast-paced, hard-hitting, high-scoring action of indoor lacrosse a version of the game billed as "the fastest game on two feet" appeals to the North American masses. The league has prospered in hockey cities like Philadelphia, Buffalo and Toronto, and Jennings has used these as models for identifying possible expansion cities.

Making the change
Things weren't always looking up in the NLL. From 1987 to 1997, its predecessor, the Major Indoor Lacrosse League (MILL), owned all of the league's teams. Four summers ago, when the players' contract with MILL expired, many players unhappy with the league's direction and lack of growth decided to separate and form the NLL, which would have privately owned teams and a greater potential for expansion. Rather than try to have two leagues make it alone, they merged to become the National Lacrosse League.
"Local ownership is really the way to go. It enabled the sport to grow," Jennings says.
The league has taken on a whole new appearance since it went to private ownership. salaries are up, exposure is greater and the league has expanded, so more people are getting to see more lacrosse. This is particularly true in Canada, where the game resembles "box" lacrosse, played indoors but on a cement surface instead of turf.

Part-time players
These aren't your pampered, pompous, millionaire athletes. No, these guys play because they really want to their salaries of $7,500 to $20,000 a year make that obvious. All players have outside jobs, and many work in or near the cities where they play. Players typically sign one- or two-year contracts; long-term deals are rare because players have to consider their full-time job status.
The majority of players are Canadian because they grow up playing the indoor game instead of field lacrosse, which Americans mostly play. Several teams, including the Power, have players from British Columbia, and fly them in for games. Several players are still students at Canadian universities (which do not have scholarship college lacrosse) who fly in for games on weekends.
Players' jobs span many fields, from middle-school teacher (the Buffalo Bandits' John Tavares), hair-replacement center operator (the Columbus Landsharks' Brent Rothfuss), to TV cable repairman (the Bandits' Andy Ogilvie), to owner of a Pacific Northwest vineyard (the Power's Del Halladay). And that's just a sample.
"We're just as great athletes [as other professionals], but we have to work to pay the bills," says the Bandits' John Tavares, who broke the league's points record last year. Because they all work full time, "you have more respect for other guys as players."

Finding a home in D.C.
Comiskey, who bought the franchise in October 2000, has worked hard to establish the Power as a viable team in the District. Comiskey negotiated a deal with Wizards owner Abe Pollin for the Power to become the sole tenant of Capital Centre (formerly US Airways Arena), and now the Power are the NLL's only team to have its own locker room and weight room.
Comiskey has brokered sponsorship deals with companies like Anheuser-Busch, Harley-Davidson and Toyota, and the Power will have more than 30 corporate sponsors this season, compared to five a year ago. Oh, yeah, and he has the league's top drawing cards in the Gait twins, Gary and Paul.
"We all do a little bit of a "Walter Mitty" if I'm going to dream, I'd like to own a team with Gary and Paul Gait on it," Comiskey says. "So when the opportunity was presented, I wanted to find a way to make it happen."
Gary Gait, recognized as one of the greatest if not the greatest players to pick up a stick, actually facilitated the deal, getting Dennis Townsend, the previous owner of the franchise, together with Comiskey late last year. Comiskey, who won two national titles as a player at Navy and is a lacrosse lifer, jumped at the chance to own the team.
The Gaits remain among the premier players in the league after 10-plus years as professionals. Behind Gary, who finished second in the league in points, the Power went 9-5 and made the playoffs last season. They are among the favorites to win the title this season, which Paul has announced will be his last.

The future
Jennings wants to cultivate the "NASCAR mentality" that has gripped NLL fans in Philadelphia and Toronto (where games regularly draw 15,000-plus) throughout the rest of the league and in expansion cities. Jennings says he plans to put three teams among four prospective cities Seattle, Portland, Chicago and Los Angeles next year and then freeze expansion. Jennings doesn't have concerns about expanding too quickly; he says as long as the teams have solid ownership in place, the league will grow.
"It's a fever," Jennings says of NLL fan interest. "I think we have that going for us."

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